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Want a premium .xxx domain? Now’s your chance

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Registries

ICM Registry, despite suffering another setback at the Cartagena ICANN meeting last week, has set the wheels in motion for the launch of .xxx with the announcement of a Founders Program.

If you want to get your hands on a “premium” .xxx domain without having to pay a tonne at auction, this is your chance.

ICM said it will license premium domains to organizations willing to develop and market their sites for at least two years, raising awareness of the TLD.

.CO Internet did a similar thing with .co, issuing one-character names to the likes of Go Daddy and Twitter. Other registries have had founder programs for super-short domains.

The program will be open to newcomers, as well as those who own “matching” domains in other TLDs.

The .xxx application is currently on hold, pending ICANN’s consultation with its Governmental Advisory Committee in February, but ICANN has said that it “intends” to approve it.

It will be interesting to see how many members of the adult community currently opposed to .xxx, if any, will attempt to participate as a Founder.

(Hat tip: Michele Neylon)

ICANN new TLD launch delayed (again)

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s new top-level domains program has been delayed, likely for a few months at least, after governments submitted a laundry list of issues they believe are still unresolved.

The Governmental Advisory Committee is mainly bothered that the Applicant Guidebook fails to adequately protect trademark rights and that the cost of the program could outweigh the benefits.

The ICANN board resolved at its meeting here in Cartagena earlier today to meet with the GAC for an unprecedented consultation next February.

(The meeting will also discuss the .xxx application, which I’ve reported on for The Register).

The actual board resolution is hopelessly lengthy and confusing at first reading. Take this doublethink:

ICANN considers that the solutions developed to address the overarching issues of trademark protection, mitigating malicious conduct, and root-zone scaling substantially reflect the negotiated position of the ICANN community, but ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC.

Some delegates here tell me they think this means the book has been closed on the portions of the guidebook dealing with IP protection mechanisms, for example.

(J Scott Evans, head of the IP constituency, stormed out of the room in a huff when this part of the resolution was read aloud.)

But the text of the resolution pretty clearly states that IP protections and the other overarching issues are still open for negotiation with the GAC and could be amended based on comments filed this week.

The resolution is open to interpretation with regards these three “overarching issues”.

It does, however, refer to other issues that are explicitly unresolved in ICANN’s view, namely the treatment of geographic names and the handling of “morality and public order” objections.

Both are singled out as needing more work before they can be finalized.

What does all this mean for the launch timetable? I think it means there isn’t one. Again.

[The ICANN board] Directs staff to synthesize the results of these consultations and comments, and to prepare revisions to the guidebook to enable the Board to make a decision on the launch of the new gTLD program as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” is either meaningless or, taken literally, means the board’s next meeting. That’s likely to be late January, if previous years are any guide.

Calls for “fast-track” for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2010, Domain Registries

Some would-be top-level domain registries have started to call for ICANN to gradually phase in the launch of its new TLD program, so they can get their feet in the door early.

ECLID, a group of six “cultural and linguistic” TLD applicants, is among a number of organizations saying that ICANN could introduce a small number of non-controversial TLDs before opening the floodgates to hundreds of new extensions.

Judging that IP concerns may continue to hold up the first round of applications and that cybersquatting risks may not be as significant in domains such as .scot or .eus, ECLID’s Davie Hutchison wrote:

We ask that ICANN move forward at speed and with determination and prevent further delay causing damage to the clTLDs and other community TLDs that will enhance the richness and diversity of the Internet. Failing the courage or resolve to do that, we ask ICANN to create a fast-track process for the “safe” community TLDs which would be an excellent testing ground for the process before opening it up to the non-community based TLDs.

Calls for a “fast track” for non-controversial TLDs have also been made by members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee this week.

It’s been the GAC’s position for a few months now that “uncontroversial” community TLDs, including those with cultural and linguistic ties, should be dealt with first.

The idea doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me. A phased launch would require the development of a new objective process to categorize applicants into “controversial” and “non-controversial” buckets.

For the amount of time and effort that would take, ICANN may as well just sort out the problems with the Applicant Guidebook as a whole.

Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s veep in charge of the new TLD program, addressed the feasibility of a phased launch during a press conference here in Cartagena today, noting that “it’s very difficult to have a round in which just a certain type of TLD allowed to apply”.

ICANN tried to restrict TLDs to limited communities with the 2003 round of “sponsored” TLDs, causing problems and controversies that continue to be felt seven years on.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that any rulebook that limited what TLDs could be applied for or who could apply for them would be soundly gamed by the domain name industry (cf .jobs, .xxx, .travel, etc).

ICANN sees “crescendo” of new TLD comment

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2010, Domain Registries

With less than 24 hours to go before ICANN’s board of directors decides the fate of the new top-level domains program, the comments and criticisms are rapidly accumulating, split along predictable lines.

In short: pretty much everybody in the domain name industry wants the TLD process to kick off ASAP, and pretty much everybody else who has an interest thinks it should not.

Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s senior vice president of stakeholder relations, said at a press conference this morning that “rather than comment diminishing towards the end to a whimper and the Guidebook being launched, we’re seeing it raising to a crescendo”.

Publicly filed comments can be found here.

“Crescendo” may be an over-statement, but verbal comments here at the ICANN meeting have been flying thick and fast and the rhetoric dial will certainly get turned up to 11 during the public forum this afternoon.

Many opponents of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook are objecting to the fact that the deadline for filing comments is tomorrow, just a couple of hours before the board convenes.

Microsoft associate general counsel Russell Pangborn, for instance, wrote:

Approval of the PAG on December 10 conveys the message that the Board deems public comment irrelevant. The possibility that ICANN staff will have read all public comment and provided a public comment summary to the Board with sufficient time for full consideration and discussion by the Board is slim at best.

Microsoft is one of many companies worried that new TLD registries’ business models will essentially be subsidized by defensive registrations paid for by big trademark holders.

The US Chamber of Commerce put it fairly succinctly:

the current plan still requires businesses to pay for defensive registrations in hundreds of new gTLDs, at prices that are unconstrained by ICANN or other bodies… Moreover, the legal expenses and domain acquisition costs of defensive registrations will not be offset by potential economic or informational value to either registrants or Internet users.

But the most comprehensively detailed objection filed by IP stakeholders over the last day or so seems to have come from INTA, the International Trademark Association.

Weighing in at 15 pages, the INTA filing says the AGB “raises significant new issues”, such as the lifting of the vertical integration ban and the new registry code of conduct.

One of its biggest issues, which I’ve heard from several other people here in Cartagena this week, is that the AGB’s rights protection mechanisms, such as Uniform Rapid Suspension and the Trademark Clearinghouse, seem to specifically exclude non-US trademarks.

That’s a pretty big issue for Europeans – the German representative on the Governmental Advisory Committee indicated on Tuesday that he thinks it’s a deal-breaker.

As I blogged yesterday, the GAC has aligned itself with the trademark lobby in its objections to ICANN, which may well delay the launch of the new TLD program somewhat.

The key issue for the GAC is the balance between cost (to trademark owners) and benefit (to everyone else).

Elliot Noss of Tucows expressed in his comment how difficult it is to predict what economic value could be created by new TLDs.

When the new round proceeds we will see a marked change in the way people will use domain names. The ability to find resources of all kinds more easily on the Internet will provide a small, but clear incremental benefit to users. But that benefit will be felt trillions of times! Every time someone finds something on the Internet more easily there will be a benefit.

There has been a lot of discussion of competition for .com. What we need to think about is NOT will any single domain become a competitor for .com, but instead will a large number of domains in aggregate provide competition for .com. This issue cannot possibly be understood by studying the extremely limited TLD introductions of the past.

Some other likely TLD applicants kept their statements short and sweet, perhaps for fear of inadvertently causing delay through verbosity.

Statton Hammock of Network Solutions wrote:

A document of this complexity and importance can never be “perfect,” or “complete” in the eyes of everyone. Though further refinements to the language could be made, we believe that the DAG, in its current form, is robust enough to support the launch of the new gTLD application process.

Pritz said that the ICANN board is “actively monitoring” the comments and will continue to do so up until its meeting tomorrow.

Trademarks may delay new TLD approval

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2010, Domain Registries

The intellectual property lobby won a notable victory this week, after governments told ICANN they want it to delay approval of the new top-level domains program until it has more cybersquatting protections.

Some members of the Governmental Advisory Committee appear to have been lobbied hard by the IP community, and have taken its concerns on board more or less wholesale.

The UK representative, Mark Carvell of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was most vocal during a meeting of the GAC and ICANN board here in Cartagena, Colombia yesterday.

He said of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook for new TLDs (which the GAC still pointedly refers to as the “DAG”, for Draft Applicant Guidebook):

Most representations we received came from brand owners, rights holders, they’re the ones being most agitated by this. I think they also recognized the potential opportunities, but the big issue for them was the costs…

The rights protection mechanisms are still not effective enough, that’s what’s coming to us in the Ministry… If you’re really hoping to sign off the guidebook this week, I think that’s something you really ought to reconsider.

Carvell pointed in particular to the proposed Trademark Clearinghouse and Uniform Rapid Suspension policies as needing work – this is essentially the IP lobby’s position also.

His views were supported by Germany, Norway and the Canadian GAC chair, among others.

A repeated refrain was “we’re not there yet”, which prompted ICANN vice-chair Dennis Jennings to push for a definition of “there”. What, in other words, would make the GAC happy enough to go ahead?

The GAC isn’t great when it comes to providing straight answers to those kinds of questions, but Carvell gave it a shot.

He said that currently the GAC does not believe that the benefits of new TLDs outweigh the costs. When it does, that would be the “key turning point”:

When we get to that position, that the benefits for businesses, for the global economy, for opportunities for business, are going to be greater, scaled-up, greater than the costs to brand owners and those who are going to have shell out big-time in order to effectively subsidize, in their view, perhaps subsidize the process.

The US representative, Suzanne Sene, added that “the whole issue is of feeling confident that benefits will outweigh the costs”.

That’s still worryingly free of a measurable benchmark, if you’re an impatient new TLD applicant.

In a further open meeting today, it became clear that the GAC is still putting forth the idea that there could be a “fast-track” or “trial” style TLD application round for “non-controversial” TLDs – presumably meaning TLDs of little interest to defensive trademark holders.

GAC chair Heather Dryden said today that “introducing a conservative first round is the best way to manage risk in the unknown”, an idea that was promptly challenged by TLD applicants including Minds + Machines CEO Antony Van Couvering.

I don’t get the feeling that the GAC has thought the idea through a great deal. In order to be half-way objective, it would presumably require the created of a second, parallel AGB for pre-approving applications. I don’t think the idea has legs.

But do the GAC’s objections mean that new TLD program, currently pencilled in to open the first application round May 30, 2011, will be delayed?

The GAC has not yet submitted its formal Cartagena advice (it should be published tomorrow), but it will presumably reflect the concerns raised over the last few days.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, the organization has to justify any decision to reject GAC advice and then “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution.”

European Commission representative Bill Dee invoked that part of the bylaws during yesterday’s meeting, and ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush agreed that talks were needed.

Dengate Thrush said he was in favor of a GAC-board meeting over one or two days at some point between now and the San Francisco ICANN meeting next March, to thrash out their differences and Dryden seemed to agree.

If that meeting was held fairly soon, it would not necessarily mean ICANN misses the May 30 deadline.

The current proposed timeline contains a 30-day window between Friday and January 11 in which ICANN staff update the “approved” AGB according to the board’s directions.

There follows an obligatory four-month ICANN outreach and marketing campaign.

Conceivably, although scheduling may be a challenge, if the GAC and board meet and resolve their differences over the next 30 days or so, the May 30 deadline could be workable.

I think it might be quite unlikely that’s going to happen, however.

The ICANN board convenes to discuss and vote on the AGB this Friday. It will be very interesting to see how its resolution is worded, and whether it can both save face and serve the GAC.